No. 1 seed Alabama and No. 2 seed Arizona stand out in the South Region of the 2023 NCAA Tournament bracket as teams playing at peak levels following conference tournament titles, but the Crimson Tide and Wildcats lack something that No. 3 seed Baylor and No. 4 seed Virginia can each claim: the Bears and Cavaliers are led by coaches with recent national titles at their schools, and both still have players in their starting lineups from those title runs.
Virginia is just 4-3 over its last seven games entering the Big Dance but should be ready for the stage as fifth-year senior point guard Kihei Clark leads the Cavaliers into action against No. 13 seed Furman four years after playing 33 minutes for UVa in its national-title victory over Texas Tech.
Similarly, the Bears are just 2-4 over their last six games but have Adam Flagler, LJ Cryer, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Flo Thamba in their rotation after all four played on the program's 2021 title team. By contrast, Alabama lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season, while Arizona was bounced in the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed. Both programs are led by rising coaching stars in Nate Oats at Alabama and Tommy Lloyd at Arizona, but neither has gone further than the Sweet 16 at this point in their careers.
The roster of contenders in the region also goes well beyond the top four teams as No. 5 seed San Diego State and No. 6 seed Creighton lurk quietly in the shadows after both spent most of the regular season's final month ranked in the AP Top 25. Additionally, the Crimson Tide are tracking to face a tough matchup in the second round against either No. 8 seed Maryland or No. 9 seed West Virginia. Both withstood the grind of tough conference slates to make the Big Dance and won't be intimidated by Alabama's elite talent. No. 7 seed Missouri is also well-equipped to keep pace with Arizona's offense in a potential second-round matchup.
Then, we have the Cinderella candidates, including No. 12 seed Charleston, which boasts a gaudy 31-3 record behind a roster that includes five players averaging double figures. No. 13 seed Furman is also a great story waiting to happen as the Paladins make their first appearance in the Big Dance in over 40 years, and No. 14 seed UC Santa Barbara nearly took down Creighton in a first-round NCAA Tournament game just two years ago.
Let's break the South Region down further as the opening games of the 2023 NCAA Tournament approach.
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Best first-round game
(7) Missouri vs. (10) Utah State: Both teams rank among the top-15 nationally in offensive efficiency, per KenPom, and both are eager to hoist 3-pointers with each averaging more than nine makes per game from beyond the arc. The Aggies only played one power-conference opponent this season, and there's a chance Missouri could overwhelm them with athleticism and physicality. But the Tigers aren't great defensively, which will allow Utah State to keep pace so long as it can avoid an avalanche of turnovers against Mizzou's pressure. Either team in this game is capable of erasing a double-digit deficit in a short time, which gives this matchup excellent potential to produce something memorable.
Top potential matchup
(1) Alabama vs. (2) Arizona: These teams are both in the top-10 nationally in points per game and pace. Both are also among the nation's best 3-point shooting teams, which would make an Elite Eight matchup between them a high-scoring, warp-speed affair. Arizona hasn't faced a team with Alabama's length and athleticism this season, but the Crimson Tide haven't played anyone with Arizona's combination of size and offensive efficiency. It would also be a meeting of great coaching minds as Alabama's Nate Oats and Arizona's Tommy Lloyd are rapidly ascending within college basketball's coaching hierarchy.
Cinderella team that will surprise
(11) NC State: NC State has its limitations, a defense ranking 85th at KenPom being one of them, but the Wolfpack are loaded with offensive playmaking. Guards Terquavion Smith and Jarkel Joiner are big-time scorers and D.J. Burns is a load for opposing defenses to handle inside. This team takes care of the basketball and is facing a Creighton defense in the first round that doesn't force many turnovers, which sets the stage for NC State to start with a boatload of points. A potential second-round matchup would pit the Wolfpack against a Baylor team entering the tournament just 2-4 over its last six games.
Team that will make a far-too-early exit
(3) Baylor: Baylor has all the pieces but hasn't quite put them together this season amid injuries and a defense that hasn't gelled. With an excellent backcourt headlined by Keyonte George, Adam Flagler and LJ Cryer, the Bears are just as potent offensively as they were when they won the national title in 2021. But that team had Davion Mitchell and Mark Vital standing out as defensive stoppers. This one doesn't, so Creighton or NC State would pose problems for the Bears in the second round. But there are no guarantees this team will get past a UC Santa Barbara squad that ranks No. 7 nationally in field goal percentage (49.3%).
Six players to watch
- Brandon Miller, Alabama: Miller stood out as the best freshman in college basketball this season after arriving at Alabama as a five-star prospect. The 6-foot-9 wing's best skill is an excellent 3-point shot, but he can score in the mid-range or attack the rim. Few defenders in the country are equipped to handle him 1-on-1, and he's in position to be a lottery pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. Miller's connection to a fatal January shooting that has former teammate Darius Miles facing a capital murder indictment is concerting and has turned the Crimson Tide into scandal-marred team. But Miller has continued to play at an elite level even while ensnared in controversy.
- Jahmir Young, Charlotte: Young transferred from Charlotte to Maryland this season and promptly took a lead-scoring role for the Terrapins under first-year coach Kevin Willard. The 6-foot-2 guard struggled in the Big Ten Tournament, making just 6 of 28 shots in two games, but he's scored 20 or more points on nine occasions and is the type of player who could emerge as a big-time star in the Big Dance.
- Terquavion Smith, NC State: Like Young, Smith is a serious scorer with no conscious when it comes to offensive production. He has the green light to attack and went off for 30 points in a must-win game for the Wolfpack against Virginia Tech in the second round of the ACC Tournament. Smith will go through cold streaks and the occasional unproductive game, but he always bounces back. He reached double figures in his first 23 games of the season and also impacts the game as NC State's leader in assists.
- Kobe Brown, Missouri: Brown ranked as the SEC's second-most impactful offensive player behind Kentucky center Oscar Tshiebwe this season, according to evanmiya.com. At 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds, he's become a matchup problem for opponents by improving his 3-point shooting to 44.7% this season under first-year coach Dennis Gates. With an elite 59.9% mark on 2-point shots and an 80.2% free-throw shooting percentage, Brown is a do-it-all forward primed to exploit opponents who have limited or no experience defending his versatile skill set.
- Steven Ashworth, Utah State: Ashworth enters the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 8 nationally in made 3-pointers with 109 and is No. 6 in percentage at 44.3%. All told, he may be the best long-range marksman in the sport. The 6-1 guard has made at least one 3-pointer in all but one game this season and has made five or more on eight occasions. His excellent ratio of 4.5 assists per game compared to just 1.7 turnovers will also come in handy during a first-round matchup against a Missouri team that thrives off collecting steals.
- Mike Bothwell, Furman: Bothwell is in his fifth season at Furman and is having his best season yet, averaging 18 points per game on 51.9% shooting. The 6-3 guard is the heartbeat of a program that is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1980. The Paladins are facing a stingy Virginia defense in the first round, but Bothwell is exactly the type of veteran guard who can navigate the challenge with composure to position the Paladins for a potential upset.
South Region winner
(1) Alabama: Alabama struggled to close the regular season amid the off-court controversy surrounding the star freshman Miller. But the Crimson Tide found their stride again in the SEC Tournament with three double-digit wins over NCAA Tournament teams. This team is elite on both ends and boasts a deep well of talent. Even amid the off-court problems, Alabama has remained unselfish and connected on the court. Even when Miller struggles, there is a deep well of talent surrounding him to pick up the slack. Arizona has proven upset-prone, Baylor has struggled lately and Virginia is without a key player in Ben Vander Plas. The Crimson Tide are the No. 1 overall seed in this tournament for a reason and have the roster and path needed to win the South Region.